Making sense of sonata form




People today with little or no musical training somehow “get” a 12-measure blues chorus or the standard song forms of various modern styles. Even music majors taking theory classes have a hard time with sonata form. How is anyone else to understand it? Sonata form did not always cause confusion or seem to set up a barrier to understanding music. It actual started off as an attempt to simplify music. I have written several posts about the rise of the middle class, the popularity of what we call “classical” music, and the aftermath of the French Revolution, which destroyed public … Continue reading

Second symphony, in D major, op. 73, by Johannes Brahms




Johannes Brahms composed his second symphony during the summer of 1877, only a year after finishing his first. Although close in time, the two symphonies differ greatly in character. The stormy and dramatic first symphony took Brahms an agonizing 15 years to complete. The warm and lyrical second symphony flowed easily from  his pen. As he wrote to Eduard Hanslick, “So many melodies fly about that one must be careful not to step on them.” Brahms enjoyed teasing friends about the progress of his works with misleading comments, such as the following. The new symphony, too, is merely a Sinfonie, … Continue reading

The Unanswered Question, by Charles Ives




One thing Charles Ives learned at Yale: he had no chance of earning a living as a professional musician if he wanted to be true to his own ideals. Not only did his musical idiom confuse his teachers, it also confused his fellow students. He went into the insurance business and composed music as a hobby. After a long day at the office, he composed during the evening in his Manhattan apartment. He spent quiet weekends at a cabin in Connecticut, meditating, writing, and planning new compositions. Ives began two new works in 1906, both called Contemplation. In later years, … Continue reading

Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini




Puccini was born into Lucca’s most prominent musical family, a dynasty that began with his great-great-grandfather. Only the Bach dynasty (seven generations) lasted longer than the Puccini dynasty. Although Puccini was only five when his father died, everyone assumed that he would eventually take over the now hereditary position of organist and music director at San Martino Cathedral. Instead, he turned away from church music and devoted his life to opera. He always had trouble finding suitable librettos and even more trouble once he had them. He started and abandoned as many operas as he completed. In 1913, he decided … Continue reading

St. Luke Passion, by Krzysztof Penderecki




Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki grew up under the heavy hand of communism and its socialist realism aesthetic. Like many Eastern Europeans of his generation, he looked to the West for inspiration and a sense of liberation from official dictates. What he and many other likeminded composers found was the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Pierre Boulez, and other representatives of a generation of composers who grew up chafing under similarly oppressive Nazism and fascism. As he commented later, this music gave the illusion of universalism, but strayed too far from the expressive qualities of Western music. Of course, his … Continue reading

Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók




Bartók and his wife fled their native Hungary and moved to New York in 1940, shortly after he composed his last work in Europe, the Sixth String Quartet. He never felt comfortable in the United States and composed nothing at all for three years. The money he received from royalties, occasional performances, and a research fellowship at Columbia University hardly provided enough to live on. To make matters worse, he contracted leukemia. The first symptoms appeared in 1940, but he did not receive a definitive diagnosis until 1944. As he got sicker and less able to work, his friends became … Continue reading

Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto no. 1 in B-flat minor, op. 73




In December 1874 Tchaikovsky completed his first piano concerto, having worked on it for a month and dedicated it to Nikolai Rubinstein, the finest pianist in Moscow. As Tchaikovsky was not a pianist, he wanted to make sure that nothing in the solo part would be technically ineffective or ungrateful or impractical. Naturally, although as he recalled later, with some misgivings, he asked Rubinstein to listen to it and give a soloist’s opinion. On Christmas Eve, the two met in a classroom at the Moscow Conservatory. Tchaikovsky played through the first movement and Rubinstein didn’t utter a word. Deeply troubled … Continue reading

What’s in a number? (Schubert)




In an earlier post, I looked at the numbering of  Dvořák’s symphonies. He wrote nine, but chose to publish only five of them. A thematic catalog of 1955 included all nine and renumbered them. That numbering is now universally used, but it caused some confusion when it first appeared. Older publications and recordings with the old numbering system catch people off guard now. Franz Schubert’s symphonies present similar problems. What is the correct numbering of his last two symphonies? It is important to remember that none of his symphonies appeared in his lifetime. The first critical edition of his works … Continue reading

The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi




Ottorino Respighi became what seemed unthinkable a hundred years ago: an Italian composer of orchestral music. He composed no successful operas at all. Instead, he wrote the first significant Italian contributions to orchestral music since the Baroque era. He studied composition with the Russian Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Under his influence, and that of the French Impressionists and Richard Strauss, Respighi wrote some very successful symphonic tone poems, foreign in form, but  very Italian in subject matter. The Pines of Rome (1924), the best known of them, is one of three tone poems that celebrate Rome–along with The Fountains of Rome (1918) … Continue reading

Jeux by Claude Debussy




Debussy wrote his last ballet and last orchestral work, Jeux, (or Games for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, with Vaslav Nijinsky as choreographer and lead dancer. The first performance puzzled its audience, and as it took place only two weeks before the tumultuous premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, it was nearly forgotten in the uproar. On closer inspection, Jeux was every bit as revolutionary and forward-looking as Sacre and even more daring harmonically. Debussy’s most nearly atonal work, Jeux‘s formal structure depends to an unprecedented degree on orchestral color and texture rather than pitch relationships. In this way, it … Continue reading